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dame sarah storey on para cycling inequality

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Dame Sarah Storey: No Prize Funds in Para-Cycling World Champs but Integration Comes First

We spoke to the decorated Olympian about the current state of affairs, and the road map to equality

We all know that funding, exposure and recognition are on the ‘could do better’ list for women in cycling. However, every year new races announce their intention to support the growth that’s taking place, and women’s cycling is undoubtably on an upward trajectory. 

‘Is it ethically right that you can promote them [Para-athletes] as elites, but not provide the same prize pot?’

One recent change that drew loud applause was the introduction of equal prize money to the men’s and women’s Team Time Trial races at the UCI World Championships – thus resulting in a full house of equality across the genders as the Road Race and Time Trial events already enjoyed parity.

Whilst we were thrilled to see this change, the progression also drew attention to an area that’s suffering much greater inequality: Para-cycling. On the day of the announcement, 27 time World Champion across para-swimming and para-cycling Dame Sarah Storey, pointed out that there is currently no prize money at the UCI Para Cycling World Champs.

Storey is the athlete representative on the UCI Para-cycling commission, which is responsible for looking after the interests of riders, as well as drawing up the calendar of events. Speaking to us at an event to promote her road cycling trade team, Podium Ambition, Storey explained that cycling differs from sports such as swimming and athletics because the governing body manages Para-sport as well as able bodied sport and is therefore responsible for, and able to change, major events such as the World Champs.

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Storey in her World Champion kit alongside her team mates

Though she appreciates organisers can’t always offer large prize funds at races sponsored by outside organisations, she felt the UCI needed to look at their policies: “It’s a big issue across all Para-sport, there isn’t the same sponsorship and investment to create a prize money pot. But you have to say that those specific events – for example where it’s a UCI World Championships: ‘is it ethically right that you can promote them as elites, but not provide the same prize pot?’”

She added that though she’d like to see more prize money available, it wasn’t first on the agenda. Not interested in “moaning” about what currently isn’t available, Storey is more concerned with searching out avenues for improvement: “At the moment in Para-cycling we’re struggling to find organisers for the World Championships full stop. So prize money becomes a much lower priority. But could we make integration part of the process in the World Champs?”

Para-cycling and able bodied World Championships are held as two separate events. The 2015 World Championships for able bodied athletes took place in Richmond, in September last year whilst the Para-cycling World Champs were in July and August, in Nottwil, Switzerland. This year they’ll also be separate events, and the same is true of the track competitions. Storey believes that it’s the segregation of the events that needs to change first, before we discuss prize money.

“We need more integration and we need to push Para-cylcing forward.”

Holding the events together works in other sports – Storey said: “In rowing the Para-rowers compete at the same World Championships and the different classifications are interspersed among the non-disabled athletes, giving more rest to those who are doing multiple events. There’s certainly a possibility for an integrated track World Championships. A few little subtle changes would need to be made to the regulations around warm up time and a few practical things to make it work. But it’s something that as a UCI Para-cycling Commission Athlete rep I’ve raised this a lot – we need more integration and we need to push Para-cylcing forward.”

Storey wins the Para-cling road race in Switzerland
Storey wins the Para-cling road race in Switzerland. Image: Getty Images for British Cycling

She added: “It’s just about changing what we’ve always done into a new format, coming up with a different blueprint and trying to find ways to accommodate everybody without losing some of the categories.”

Of course, hosting extra events at the World Championships would add extra logistical hurdles – but it would require just a few extra resources in terms of race officials, motorbikes etcetera. However, it seems unlikely the extra requirement would ever match that of putting on a whole extra dedicated event.

Storey told us she expected about two extra days of racing would need to be added – saying: “We have a four day Para-cycling track worlds, and a four day Para-cylcing road worlds, plus one evening because we have a handcycling relay on the opening evening. But if you look at the UCI Road Worlds, you start with the Team Time Trials and Time Trials, then you have some of the junior and under 23 races, then the senior Road Races. Within that programme you could host other races. Time Trials could be extended [so Para-athletes race the same course on the same day]. Para-cycling races are traditionally quite short, if my road race is two hours it’s a miracle sometimes. So yes of course you need extra officials and double the number of motor bikes. But then if you’re holding the event at a different time in a completely different location you still have double. So logistically I think it just needs a little bit of working. You might have to extend the [able bodied] World Championships by two days but potentially that then becomes less than the separate events.”

“[It’s] being accepted by the able bodied championships as being a worthy inclusion.”

She added: “It’s just getting the right person in there [organising the events]. And being accepted by the able bodied championships as being a worthy inclusion.”

I’m pretty shocked by her use of the word ‘worthy’. With 27 World titles to her name and enough Olympic medals to weigh down a champion lifter, Storey is clearly worthy – as are her decorated colleagues. However, when I question the word – she says: “That’s what some of the athletes feel like.”

Storey is very clear to express that she’s all about driving change, not mourning over the current inequality. Always looking for practical ways to solve a problem, she compares Para and Women’s Cycling – two ‘niche’ areas she’s been simultaneously instrumental in progressing – saying: “ I suppose it’s a parallel journey to what we’ve been following with women’s cycling, if you look at where Para-cylcing is in comparison, it’s just as far behind as women’s cycling used to be. We can utilise some of the lessons from the journey in women’s cycling.”

Already supporting a fantastic UCI Pro women’s team, plus a development team as well as competing at the top level herself, Storey is a force to be reckoned with and we look forward to seeing Para-cycling on its journey towards equality under her guidance in the coming years. 

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